Missing Ingredients

small black dog yawning while being pet on the chestIt stands to reason that if we have not ever lived with a seriously scared dog that we would not have developed the skills to work effectively with them. Even if we’ve assisted other people living with a dog like this, there’s nothing quite like 24/7 to put our feet to the fire.

I regularly speak with people embarked on the bumpy journey to change their dogs. Many, after hearing the suggestions I make, express regret that they had been going about it ineffectively for as long as they had. It was obvious that what they were doing was ineffective, but unaware of the protocols used to change emotional responses and behaviors in dogs, had no way to discern if the problem was with the dog or with them. Many were following the advice of misinformed trainers or veterinarians and doubted their own ability to apply what were ineffective protocols to begin with.

The two ingredients which are essential to the process of helping fearful dogs are skill and patience. We can often stumble along making slow headway if we are missing one or the other, and it’s what most of us do when first confronted with the challenge of training fearful dogs. It’s when both of these key ingredients are missing from the mix that it becomes frustrating and potentially deadly for the dog. It is often our lack of patience with a dog that compels us to put too much pressure on them and some will snap, literally snap. Dogs who bite people or other animals run an increased risk of being abandoned or killed.

We improve our skills through education and practice. It takes time and energy. That education can also help increase our patience with a dog. When you understand that a terrified dog can’t do what you are trying to get them to do and is not being willfully disobedient it’s easier to cut them some slack. No one stands a 9 month old baby on their feet and implores them to walk or is surprised or disappointed when they don’t. Or we become able to see their behavior for what it is, a warning or a plea.

We shouldn’t be surprised that someone who has only ever lived with happy, social dogs would struggle when an unsocialized or abused dog lands in their home. We need to extend some of that patience to ourselves as the dog’s trainer and caretaker. We too can continue to become more confident and competent in the way we communicate and go about the unending process of becoming better than we already are.

What are the other ingredients you add to your work with fearful dogs?

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40 comments so far

  1. Bob Ryder on

    Great post – I am persuaded that patience is probably the single most important ingredient for any facet of dog training, fear b-mod or otherwise. Another might be a generally calm/gentle/friendly demeanor on the part of the trainer. Thanks for your usual insightful and informative perspective! =-)

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      And thank you for reading and commenting. We are less likely to do damage if we are patient, that’s for sure.

  2. Annie on

    Love, lots and lots of love. That is the ingredient I would add. Wonderful post. xoxo

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Love doesn’t hurt! I think it’s love that frequently ensures the commitment to continuing work with the dog.

  3. crystalpegasus1 on

    Wine for nights when the patience runs out 😉

    • Theresa Liddle on

      A willingness to think outside the box when needed to figure out what works for the dog. I also think that listening to others that are in the same boat is also in order. I don’t always use their suggestions, but I listen and to all and use what I think will work. Ozi came to me at 8 weeks old as anti social and fearful. I researched the breeder and did all the right things, but obviously, something happened with this litter. He has been great though and offered me another dog so I can’t be too angry. I chose to keep Ozi as I love him, but I will say it has been a very challenging and at times, daunting experience for me. My previous boy who died at 10 was the dream of all dreams for a dog so this is way outside my knowledge. It took a while of listening to well intended trainers who I figured out didn’t know so much about fearful dogs. It’s amazing to me as I was the same way, fearful meant afraid of things and wow, that couldn’t be more farther from the reality. So, I think me starting to “think outside the box” and realize that what works for one is not always the case helped more than anything.

      Thank you for this site as well and ALL the knowledge that is shared here. It has helped me so much, you just can’t imagine. You are all amazingly informative and it really helps to alleviate some of the fear in me owning such a fearful dog.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        Thanks Theresa. It’s good to know that folks like you, living the challenge, are finding helpful info here.

      • Nicole on

        Hi there, I had basically the same experiece. I got my dog at 8 months old from a registeered breeder but she to was very fearful of everything!! I did contact the breeder and she also offered me another dog. My worry about returning her was that she was to be used for breeding and I wasnt ok with a fearful dog being used as a breeding dog. So I kept her. She is truly a wonderful dog. We have had our ups and downs and some very frustrating moments with trainers and their advice…or lack of..But it is now a year and a half later and she is like a different dog! Still a nervous girl and will probably always have issues but she is managable now and every now and then she shows us her true personality hiding deep down. We still have some major hurtles to get over but its coming…
        I love reading your blog Debbie and your website has provided me with some much needed support and information along the way. Thank you!

    • EngineerChic on

      YES! And a sense of humor that helps me remember it isn’t personal – S might cower and squint when I accidentally have mail in the same hand as the leash, and now I just chuckle and drop the leash (sometimes I have a blonde moment and forget that the leash hand MUST BE EMPTY).

      It would be easy to say, “But I’ve NEVER hit you!”. But it serves no purpose. Better to laugh at myself for forgetting the proper sequence (drop leash, put mail in left hand, open door with right hand).

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        Keeps you on your toes.

  4. Dana @ Life With Beamer on

    I don’t work with fearful dogs for a living but I certainly live with a fearful dog. Surprisingly enough it took a whole before I realized that patience was a necessary ingredient to bringing her around. I think alongside patience is the ability to keep one’s own emotions in check, which is part of what makes bringing trainers into the equation also so essential. Keeping my own emotions – whether it’s frustration, fear, excitement, etc – in check is a much different battle when working with my own dog than when working with someone else’s.

  5. Hazel on

    For 14 years we had the best dog ever. By this I mean he was very social, sweet, charming. He walked on a leash by your side, never pulling, never barking at other dogs. He loved everything. When we lost him the next one was just as sweet. THEN CAME Dusty and our lives would never be the same. Afraid of everything, don’t touch me, don’t look at me. Only one he liked was our dog (Rascal). But Dusty has taught us so much more than any other dog. He will never be social, never trust strangers, never trust those that come by occassionally. But he is the soul of our home. We have learned to think outside the box, do things differently. Now I talk about him as my first fearful dog. I am up to the challenge again if needed.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      It’s serendipitous that you write this Hazel because this post was part of a longer conversation I had with myself recently about how these dogs impact our lives in positive ways. I’m working on the rest!

      • Hazel on

        I will be looking forward to that article. We thought living in a smaller city that we lived a slower life than most but Dusty has taught us to really slow down, look at different angles, be more observant, and most of all to enjoy the journey. It is worth the journey for sure and we have learned to love even more. So many positives that outweigh the negatives. So what if he is different, it just makes him better.

  6. rangerskat on

    I’d add consistency and communication to the list. Somewhere else, book or blog I don’t remember, you had a fabulous quote about having shown up after all the rules were explained. That is Finna. She came to us with no idea what the rules are and the more I’m able to be consistent in my expectations and to clearly communicate to her what the expectations are the better it is for her. Since she missed out on all the early socialization that would have made her an awesome dog she’s very bad at understanding human behavior, what’s normal, what’s abnormal, what is and is not a threat to her. Not being able to predict the species that rules her world is terrifying. The more I’m consistent the easier I am to predict and the less frightening. I try to keep that in mind as we work with her.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Yes that comment was made in regard to how I felt about life as a teenager. Everyone else seemed to know what to do and expect. Of course I realize now that it only appears that way. Consistency and communication, great adds!

  7. sara on

    Acceptance …..we must accept that our dog may never be the dog we expected to have, but the can still be a wonderful member of the family (even if they can’t handle being included in every aspect of our lives).

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Acceptance makes life easier across the board I think.

    • Terri Bohl on

      Our Zander will never be a social butterfly. He loves, loves, loves the family he’s grown up with, but he’s afraid of strangers and will never be able to socialize with company. That’s okay…when my daughter has company Zander is put in the bedroom with a treat so he knows he’s not being punished. It makes a happy gathering for everyone concerned.

  8. Karen on

    Empathy. When I get frustrated or sad (when he is still afraid of even me), I remind myself of what he survived and how it must have changed him from the dog he would have been… And yes,
    acceptance also is a good thing.

  9. Lynn on

    I’ll offer a caution on what not to add: a “normal” dog to help the fearful one … at least not without choosing very, very carefully. When we realized how much more comfortable Tulip was with other dogs than with humans, we adopted Jasmine, who likes people, to show her how it’s done. Jazz certainly helped Tulip in that respect. But, either because of my failings as a trainer, or because she contracted Lyme disease, or whatever the reason, after a few months, Jazz became highly reactive and started picking fights with other dogs, and Tulip copied that, too. Now I have two problem doggies … and a very expensive fence in the works.

    • Hazel on

      Dusty looks to Rascal, our normal dog, all the time. But it may be that we had Rascal first and he is the first thing Dusty would let get close to him. Sorry you had problems with yours.

    • Debbie on

      This is an important cautionary tale.

  10. Linda Trunell on

    I agree these are all necessary things – patience, consistence, love, acceptance, communication and sympathy. I would add empathy is a bonus – something not everyone can have but those who do understand what the dog is going through because they share the feelings.

    • Debbie on

      Being able to feel their pain can have a big impact on how we respond to them, good point.

  11. Cybele on

    Patience is number one and developing it has empowered me in a way I never thought about before. Also, she loves routine. She’s up for overnight trips but even on the road we keep to her daily and nightly rituals.

    I’ve trained myself to think like my dog’s guide/service person. She has learned to trust my judgement to a greater extent than I would have imagined 2 1/2 years ago when she came into our lives.
    And of course training classes, reading, researching, and blogs like yours have been real lifesavers when we felt overwhelmed and in over our heads with her behavior that sometimes bordered on hysteria.

    She’s also the smartest dog we’ve ever lived with. I sometimes wonder if her intelligence has anything to do with how her mind considers the negative possibilities in a given situation.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Routine, so important. Being able to predict was is likely to happen next helps lower stress for sure. I have often found myself noticing that the dogs I put the most effort into training end up being the smartest. Funny how it works that way 😉

  12. martie13 on

    I would say, in addition to acceptance, understanding my dog’s level of fear is most important. Because of my fearful dog I’ve learned a lot about dogs in general that I didn’t realize I didn’t know because I was led to do a lot of research to understand the science and psychology. Molly was completely shut down when she came to live with me 2 years ago after having been born and raised for 3 years tied outside with 16 other dogs. The rescue who took all 17 dogs said Molly was the most fearful & their attempts to rehome her for 2 years were unsuccessful because nobody wanted a dog in her shape. It broke my heart so I adopted her to give her a better life, in a home where she would be loved. It has been a slow process but I do have the patience and committment. She trusts me as much as she is capable of trusting anyone but she is still reverts to her fearful/anxious state with other people and with the outside world. Keeping her under threshold is my main objective so I don’t try to nudge her into doing anything she’s not comfortable with which includes going outside. I don’t feel bad for her confinement inside because I believe that her comfort level, mentally and emotionally, is more important than fresh air and exercise. She has learned to play and be herself and she appears to be relatively happy. That’s really enough for me to feel like I have given her a better life.

  13. Maggie on

    Confidence! Even if you’re faking it… I’ve found that in situations where I feel nervous or unsure, the dog reacts more forcefully. If I feel calm and confident, they can read it in my face, lack of tension, breathing, whatever, and it affects how they respond.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Fake it til you feel it! 🙂

  14. Chris and Habi on

    Along with all the great comments above, I’ll add the art of no expectations. “You should be able to do this”. “We will walk to the end of the block.” “Of course you can sit in this situation”. When I shed my expectations, so that I was listening instead of planning, our whole world changed. I was finally listening, and she had a whole lot to tell me.

  15. Pam on

    It has been 18 months since I brought my puppy home and embarked on this journey of life with a fearful dog. I have learned so much from this site but I still struggle every day with making the right decision about how to react to his fears and reactiveness. Tonight was the worst so far. A family member was here and before entering the room I was in announced loudly that she was coming into the room. My dog reacted with wide open eyes and tried to run toward her. Since I held his leash and he could not leave he tried to bite me and succeeded – twice. Neither broke the skin but only because I was able to pull him away with the leash. This is the first time he has tried to bite me and I am now afraid, not of him, but that I cannot help him enough that he feels safe with me. His behaviorist does not recommend medication as she feels it is unpredictable; well so is he now without medication. Tonight I am seriously considering giving up; that he is so afraid that he does not even feel safe with me and perhaps there is no hope for him to enjoy life. Perhaps it is time to help him move on and perhaps have better luck in a future life. I just feel like such a failure and that I let him down.

    • Debbie on

      Redirected aggression is not unusual. The conditions the dog was in–restrained & something scaring him, likely contributed to it.

      I don’t really understand. Were you speaking in a loud voice to announce to your dog that someone was coming? Do you think your dog was able to understand that or might have reacted to your raised and then seeing someone? Do you understand how desensitization and counter conditioning are done?

      Debbie Jacobs Fearfuldogs.com

  16. Pam on

    Yes, I understand now what happened. The person coming into the room was talking loudly to let me know she was here and my dog looked at me. Instead of doing the usual thing I do (act happy that we have company coming) I grabbed his leash to restrain him and he reacted to the nervousness I felt. We have been working on desensitization and counter conditioning. I find this site incredibly helpful; it’s actually more helpful than his behaviorist is. Sometimes I struggle with deciding what’s best for him. He seems to be happy more often than he is afraid. Thank you for responding.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      The leash restraint was likely a big piece. We need to be careful when we make assumptions about them responding to any nervousness we feel. Not that it doesn’t happen but many people will flip that assumption over and think that if the handler felt more confident and in charge the dog would not be afraid or reactive. That is not necessarily the case. Often when a dog is really scared they are not paying attention to our “energy” or care what we may be thinking about the situation.

  17. patttimlinPatt on

    We’ve recently taken in our second fearful dalmatian. She was with a family who said ‘they just wanted a normal dog.’ I felt so bad that in her short life she had been judged to be lacking every single day! She came to live with us in May. She’s still VERY skittish but she knows her way around the house, isn’t hiding, plays with our big guy and even comes over for a cuddle for a few seconds at a time! Frankly, it’s a lot better than our big guys was when he moved in! For now, I am just letting her be. If she hides for too long I will go bring her into the family room with the rest of us but we haven’t done any training or anything just yet. There’s time in a few months to start working with her after she’s settled. Scaredy dogs are a handful. The training is so slow and progress measured in such miniscule increments but with the right peeps, these dogs can find happiness.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s good of you to take this dog on. Understanding about triggers, thresholds, desensitization and counter conditioning will help a lot.

  18. spencer on

    Consistency! (as rangerskat put so well)

    Noticing – learning to notice both your dog, and yourself. Not only noticing signs of stress in your dog, but also signs of progress, big and little. And noticing what you do (are you being consistent? Are you making a sound or movement unintentionally, that might be distracting your dog? Are you wearing something you haven’t worn before, that your dog might not like, or need to get used to?)

    Imagination – what can I do to get my dog engaged, interested, curious? Can I adapt a training game to her level of comfort? (I loved the muffin tin game idea from another post, but April was afraid of the muffin tin, even when it held only treats, so I am hiding treats under a toy that she can easily push aside to ‘find it’)

    Restraint – of yourself. Don’t make a training session too long – leave ’em wanting more. This can be hard, especially when they’re doing well. Resist the ‘just one more…’, especially early on.

    A ‘never stop learning’ attitude – combined with critical thinking. There’s a lot out there, and more being learned all the time. There are great training techniques, as well as outdated (even harmful) ones – watch, listen, ask questions. What’s the reasoning and/or research behind a method? If you’re not comfortable using a specific technique on your dog, don’t – no matter who says to.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m sure if you think about it you can arrange those statements in an order to come up with a good acronym!

  19. michellefischer321 on

    Good post! We have a dog that looks just like the black dog in the picture and were wondering what kind of breed mix it is. We were told ours is a shih tzu poodle but we think that is wrong.


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